THE FLAW IN VETTEL’S RACING GENIUS
Vettel’s desire to “go for it no matter what” has yielded some stunning results for Ferrari this year. The fact he has qualified on the front row 13 times in 18 attempts so far, in the second fastest car on the grid, stands as further testament to what we’ve always known about Vettel – that he is a superb qualifier who so often can find a few tenths extra from nowhere when it really matters. Contrast that with team-mate Raikkonen, who has made the front row just five times in 2017.
Paradoxically, Vettel has also been found wanting at some of the most critical moments. He has thrown away 38 points all on his own by first driving into Hamilton behind the safety car in Azerbaijan and copping a 10-second penalty – which turned a likely race win into fourth place – then defending aggressively from Verstappen after a poor start from pole in Singapore, which triggered a three-way collision with Raikkonen and wiped a further 25 potential points off the board.
The Baku incident is particularly troubling, suggesting a vulnerability in Vettel’s psyche that cannot keep his emotions in check when he becomes a victim of perceived injustice. In the heat of the moment, Vettel felt Hamilton had dangerously brake-tested him. Vettel’s composure deserted him and the red mist took over, with serious consequences for his title aspirations and his standing within motorsport.
And this act of road rage is not the first time we have seen Vettel lose his cool under pressure. He was forced to apologise to the FIA after the 2016 Mexican Grand Prix, when he launched into a foul-mouthed tirade at race director Charlie Whiting over the FIA’S decision not to penalise Verstappen’s defensive tactics.
There is an occasional clumsiness to Vettel’s driving in these peak moments of stress too, like tagging the back of Hamilton’s Mercedes at Turn 3 in Mexico this year, after being overtaken by Verstappen at Turns 1 and 2, and Vettel sometimes seems unwilling to take responsibility for his mistakes. In these ways, he and Schumacher are quite similar.
“He’s German, but doesn’t have this attitude of being calm and just focused, so he’s far more, in a race car, Italian,” says Marko of Vettel. “More than you’d expect from a German, especially when you talk to Vettel normally, but it shows how much he puts into his efforts.
“Schumacher was also very focused, but he never had this emotional thing like Seb has sometimes. He [Vettel] has his belief of honesty and justice. I wouldn’t say that makes it a vulnerability, but if he doesn’t feel guilty he wouldn’t admit [guilt] just for diplomatic reasons.”
Vettel’s 2014 team-mate Ricciardo agrees Vettel’s emotions can sometimes cloud his judgement inside the car, but says his approach outside of it is as professional as they come.
“From what I can see with him, I think that instant, that spur of the moment, he can obviously get quite reactive or emotional,” Ricciardo explains. “But I think once that spike of adrenaline comes back down, he has a good approach to things.
“Mexico last year and all that with the radio and the incident, I’m sure he was pretty vocal at first but then he was like, ‘Alright, maybe I’ll reassess what just happened’. [He’s] fairly emotional, but I think the emotion comes from the passion. He’s one of the most passionate guys on the grid, and I know he lives F1 probably more than most of us.
“Any time I beat him in 2014, I’m sure when we crossed the finish line he was pissed, but once we got back to the engineers’ [room], he always shook my hand and congratulated me. I think once the adrenaline calms down he’s got a solid approach.”
Vettel was adamant he did nothing wrong in Azerbaijan initially, but gradually accepted the error of his ways, issuing an apology to the FIA for creating a “dangerous situation” through his driving, and subsequently admitting he felt he
“let the team down” with his actions in that race.
Without the points lost to that red-mist moment and the crash he triggered in Singapore, Vettel would still be in proper title contention now – even allowing for those unfortunate Ferrari engine reliability problems in Malaysia and Japan.
Vettel now concedes that Baku “was very clear” as a mistake on his part, but he is less convinced by arguments that he should have driven differently in Singapore.
“Baku was very clear – what happened, happened,” Vettel says. “Did I do myself a favour? No, because I could have won the race with the issue Lewis had after. Otherwise, I don’t think we had the speed to challenge, so the safety car was my, let’s say, chance for glory. It turned out differently.
“For Singapore, I think those things happen. I’ve looked at it plenty of times, I do understand the people that say, ‘Ah, it’s all wrong!’ Do I agree? Not necessarily, because put yourself in the car, how much mirror you have to watch, all I could see was Max. If you then think about another guy, another guy, another guy, well where do you stop?
“Then people try to interpret it – a lot of intelligence in that moment where other people went OK, then stupidity when it ended up in a crash. But then you could also argue it’s just luck or no luck, or just how it came together. Then there are other reasons. I had an average start, Kimi had a great start. In theory Kimi should have a worse start than I had, but it happened that the grip was so good that he had a better start, whatever.
“So, in the end, it is a racing incident. For sure, it went bad for me, it went super well for Lewis, because he didn’t have to do anything and he found himself in the lead after three corners. But that’s how it goes sometimes.
“If it works in your favour, you don’t spend so much time thinking about it. It all comes down to ‘would you do much differently?’ Probably not, because I don’t think my move over to Verstappen was overly aggressive. I stopped in the moment where I got the hit to give him the room to dive into Turn 1 to cut back on the inside, but it never came to that point…”
What cannot be disputed is Vettel’s dignity in defeat. After the disappointment of retiring early in Japan, he made a point of shaking hands with every member of his team, and when the title battle was finally conceded to Hamilton in Mexico, Vettel declared publicly and repeatedly that Hamilton was
“the better man” in 2017.
It is also clear, like Schumacher before him, that Vettel has galvanised Ferrari and gradually brought the team into his particular orbit. You can see his true greatness in these latter moments of bitter disappointment – rallying his team, praising their efforts, asking for them to be protected (from Maranello’s political machinations as much as external criticism) – during their period of pain. He’s urging them on to new heights in the future, showing that he is a leader as well as a great driver.
“Sebastian is mentally very strong – he’s very committed, very determined. He’s very sharp, he misses nothing, so his complete package is astonishingly good,” says Red Bull chief engineer Paul Monaghan. “His entire approach of attention to detail, knowledge of the car, understanding, his ability to adapt to the car balance as it evolves in the race – these are the great qualities of Sebastian.
“You see it in Max and Daniel too. They’re clever and they adapt. Having worked with Fernando, he was the same. When I was race engineer [at Renault] he was condemned to some appalling cars! His ability to adapt was absolutely astonishing. Lap after lap he’s on it, and Sebastian is the same, and Lewis is the same.
“To my mind, you look at Daniel, you look at Max, you look at Fernando, you look at Sebastian, you look at Lewis – they are consistently good. They do not have bad runs. They are always quick – on a Friday, a Saturday, a Sunday. It is that ability to always be competitive, to always extract the best from it, that carries them to the levels they reach.”
And through their good, bad or ugly moments, the true greats never give up. Vettel senses he is close to achieving his dream with Ferrari. Next year he will be back, aiming to be better and stronger than he was this year, and to finally topple Mercedes from its perch – once and for all.
Vettel is still reluctant to take responsibility for the Singapore crash
Vettel’s conduct has made for front-page news and conflict with the authorities